Posts Tagged Brian Eno

The Undercover Soundtrack – Stephen Weinstock

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is theatre composer and fantasy novelist Stephen Weinstock @s_weinstock

Soundtrack by Fela Kuti, Beach Boys, Alice Coltrane, Benny Goodman, Brian Eno, the Doors, Jack Bruce, George Harrison, Beethoven, David Lang, Adam Guettel

Having marveled each week at how writers use music to flesh out a character or bring emotional life to their work, I feel like a fraud. These authors put on a particular piece to evoke what they write, but that feels like a magical act of synesthesia to me. So why does this poor fraud need music to write? In 2003, Apple introduced iTunes and the computer playlist, and I began my series, 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles. For each of its 1001 chapters a character recounts a past life story, creating a karmic puzzle for the ten linked souls, the qaraq. The playlist became a writing tool to give me courage for this daunting task.


For Book One of the series, The Qaraq, I had to hold a lot in my head as I wrote: introducing ten characters in their present lives in suburban New Jersey, and fitting together the first puzzle pieces of their history. That they all lived as different body parts of a single prehistoric dragonfly is proof enough of the Qaraq’s reincarnations, but when reveal this epiphany?

I need concentration to manage this material. To minimize distracting shifts within my eclectic playlists, I often select long cuts, like Fela Kuti’s half-hour jam Look and Laugh.

My favorite listening process is a ‘contest,’ where I intersperse a playlist with ten recent downloads, then narrow them down to a ‘winner.’ A current winner: The Beach Boys’ gorgeous, new That’s Why God Made the Radio.

But assessing winners while writing requires concentration on the music. I realized one function of my listening is procrastination, re-organizing the next half-hour of songs, or mixing in every Andante from Mozart’s first fifteen symphonies. Perhaps I need distraction from the heady multiple structures. On the other hand, often I don’t notice the music and get on a roll. Deeply meditative pieces help this flow, like Alice Coltrane’s incomparable Journey in Satchidananda.


The energy of a composition provides another clue to why I listen while creating 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles. Sometimes I need a perky track for stimulation, like One O’Clock Jump from the famous Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert.

By contrast, in the morning on the train, or after work, I need peace, like the gentle repetition of Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports. For my latest book, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor, I contemplated the effect of Maya, the Hindu concept of worldly illusion. Blocked by the trivial details of everyday life, the Qaraq loses its power of memory, the higher awareness of reincarnation. I did not seek music to evoke a meditative mood, but in developing the theme of how Maya hinders and helps, I heard a lot of ragas and minimalist music. An unconscious influence?


So I examined if music had an unconscious effect on my work. The Qaraq’s past life tales are full of wild imagination and experimental writing styles. My brain conjures up atomic particles having a love spat, an alien performing arts school where dancers train their nerves rather than their muscles, or an Ice Age tribe that copes by re-configuring the calendar to include three seasons, excluding winter.

I hope music triggers my imagination, and I make quirky selections for my playlists: a rarely heard track from a familiar artist, like Indian Summer by The Doors; a song off the beaten path, like Jack Bruce’s He the Richmond, from his masterful Songs for a Tailor; or hard-to-find gems, like George Harrison’s first film soundtrack, Wonderwall, the Indian collaboration he did during The Beatles.

But if an unconscious process, I may never know if music is the spark.

Ucov Stephen2


It pains me to think I cannot access music’s emotional depths to deepen my writing. The writing process is painful enough. When I stare into space wondering how the next word will appear, it’s comforting to have music in my ears, like a virtuosic arpeggio from Glenn Gould’s brilliant reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 making me think, You can do this!

Despite its fanciful whimsy, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor has emotional moments, which were difficult to write. The Egyptian stories start humorously, with a pyramid tomb salesman, but lead to a terrifying vision of immortality, the dread of living endlessly with no relief from conflict. Can I access the pain of this emotion through music? I sobbed inconsolably when I heard David Lang’s ethereal The Little Match Girl Passion last winter, after seeing homeless people freezing on the sidewalks of New York City.
The beauty of it is a balm while writing, but it can’t make me write better.

A final test

For me, music and text exist on separate levels. The final chapter of The Qaraq and the Maya Factor is like a novella, where all the characters’ present-day dénouements thread through an epic past life tale. The first European translator of The Thousand and One Nights faces a moral crisis whether to fabricate tales to complete all 1001 sections of the collection. A mysterious ally lures him to a secluded chateau, full of cats costumed as fairy tale characters, and guides him to an emotional epiphany.

Playing a tune that always give me shivers, like Come to Jesus, by Richard Rodgers’s grandson, Adam Guettel, might inspire the struggle, the mystery, or the passion of this scene. But I only experience the duet on its own terms; it doesn’t bring the words alive. Am I a lost cause?

Looking back on this chapter, I am pleased with it: the way the Qaraq’s issues reflect the tale (complexity); the misty locale of the magical chateau (energy); the translator’s fantastical epic discovering the Nights (imagination). I feel moved by the impassioned encounter between the translator and his ally. Maybe music did have some psychic influence on the writing when all is said and done.

!cid_120C39F1-DFC3-4509-93E7-E64DD875E106Stephen Weinstock is the author of 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles. You can find more information on the series and the upcoming ebook giveaway here . Find Stephen on Facebook. 1001 will be an 11-book series, contain 1001 chapters and past lives, and take the rest of Stephen’s life to complete. Book 2 is here. Musically speaking, Stephen worked for years as a composer in the theatre. He won his 15 minutes of fame for the experimental sound-theatre work Mt. Quad at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, developed and team taught the first curriculum for opera/musical theatre writing at New York University, and created music for dancers at the Martha Graham School of Dance, Juilliard, and LaGuardia Arts HS (the ‘Fame’ School), where he continues to bring young dancers to physical, emotional, and spiritual ecstasy every day. Find him on Twitter as @S_Weinstock.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Isabel Ashdown

for logo‘A scandal in a small place’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by award-winning novelist Isabel Ashdown @IsabelAshdown

Soundtrack by David Bowie, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, The Clash, Lana Del Rey, The Smiths

When I write, there must be no sounds other than the distant purr of traffic and birdsong, and the tap of my fingers on the keyboard.  But between the moments of physical writing, music plays a strong role in the development of my fictional worlds, and it provides me with a therapeutic contrast to the long hours of quiet and solitary creation.


Isle of Wight Aug 09 Col MasterMy work is always borne out of obsession – a growing fascination with certain ideas, images and themes that will haunt me independently until the strongest of them converge to form the basis of my novel.  At the early stages of Summer of ’76, I discovered these things: it was a story about a scandal in a small place, set on the Isle of Wight in the heatwave summer of that year, and my protagonist was a 17-year-old boy called Luke.  From the outset, David Bowie’s Young Americans played a constant loop through my mind, with its sense of optimistic yearning and sunny, sad lyrics.  Out in my car, driving towards my post-writing dog walks, I’d play the track, recalling the thrill of discovering the second-hand album when I was myself a teenager.

In Summer of ’76, the weather is arguably a character in its own right.  Images and senses of summer play a strong role, and as the drama of the island scandal intensifies and escalates, so too does the temperature.  My own memories of heat-baked lawns, the rise and fall of honeysuckle and the slip-slap of flip-flops on boiled asphalt seemed to draw me to particular soundtracks – those that reflected gentle summers beneath a clear blue sky, and those reminiscent of a fractious, broiling season where tempers fray and secrets spill over.  Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun was a favourite I’d habitually play over weekend morning coffee, and one whose lyrics felt strangely apt.  In stark contrast, Brian Eno’s Baby’s on Fire, an old favourite of mine, has that frenetic, out of control atmosphere that seems to go on without end, not unlike like that ceaseless summer of 1976.  Hearing these tracks could transport me into Luke’s world, and often I’d play them to kickstart the writing where I last left off.

Time of struggle

The year 1976 holds great interest for me, not only because of that extraordinary weather.  Across the country, it was a time of struggle and social change, of unemployment, high inflation and striking workers.  But it was also a time of great opportunity.  Home ownership was the new aspiration, and holidays abroad something within the realms of possibility.  Feminism gained momentum, the punk movement made headlines, and in a period of unprecedented sexual liberation, it seemed anything was possible.  Many would have us believe that the 70s was all Abba and Roussos and Brotherhood of Man.  But of course the pop of an age can only tell us the surface story – and isn’t it what’s beneath the surface that interests us writers more than anything?  Whilst punk was only just hitting the headlines, its electricity could already be felt fizzing in the ether.  For me, for Luke’s burgeoning desire for escape, the track I frequently turned to was London Calling by The Clash, from the album of the same name, and one that’s never far from the top of my playlist.

SUMMER OF '76 by Isabel Ashdown, COVER, April 2013Luke’s summer is bubbling with conflict.  He’s ever hopeful about reinventing himself in the wider world, with its promises of freedom, sex and adventure; yet revelations about his parents’ personal lives cause him to question everything he thought he knew.   This conflict of adolescence is something that excites me greatly in writing – and I’m drawn to music which does the same.  Perhaps it’s where the music does one thing, yet the lyrics do something else, or where the track is at once uplifting and melancholy.  During this writing phase, I discovered a remarkable mashup online: Lana Del Rey vs The Smiths – This Charming Video Game.  I was a big Smiths fan in my teen years, and the blend of these two tracks – and their videos – seemed perfectly heartbreaking, representing to me everything that is tough about growing up, about coming of age.

Isabel Ashdown is the author of three novels published by Myriad Editions: Glasshopper (London Evening Standard and Observer Best Books of the Year 2009) Hurry Up and Wait (Amazon Top Customer Reads 2011), Summer of ’76, and winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition 2008. In 2013, her essay on the subject of ‘voice’ will feature in Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens, in which novelists, agents and publishers discuss the joys and challenges of writing a first novel (Palgrave MacMillan). Isabel writes from her West Sussex home which she shares with her husband, a carpenter, their two children, and a border terrier called Charlie.  Find out more about her at or chat to her on facebook and twitter.

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